France frees Iranian killer amid deal controversy

18th May 2010, Comments 0 comments

An Iranian agent walked free from a French prison Tuesday and was to fly home as controversy raged over whether his release was tied to that of a French academic freed from Tehran a few days ago.

A Paris court ordered the release of Ali Vakili Rad who had served 16 years for stabbing and strangling to death the shah's last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, at his home outside Paris in 1991.

The court granted a parole request to the Iranian national after the French interior minister signed a deportation order.

Vakili Rad left the prison in Poissy, west of Paris, under heavy police escort and was to board a plane for Tehran later in the day.

His lawyer insisted the decision was not part of a secret deal with Tehran to secure the release of 24-year-old Clotilde Reiss, who was tried in Tehran on spying charges.

"This must not be seen as an exchange," Sorin Margulis told reporters. "The Reiss affair did nothing but complicate and delay my client's release."

But an Iranian rights activist who represented Bakhtiar's family during Vakili Rad's trial accused France of "negotiating with a terrorist state" to free the perpetrator of a brutal killing using kitchen knives.

"They used an anaesthetic on him to make sure he wouldn't scream and then cut open his veins to bleed him dry," said Karim Lahidji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year linked Reiss's chances of release to the fate of Iranians held in French jails, but France has firmly denied that a swap had been agreed.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner insisted that there had been no "pay-off" and no "horse-trading" between Paris and Tehran ahead of Reiss' return home on Sunday at the end of a 10-month ordeal.

Vakili Rad was convicted in 1994 of murdering 76-year-old Bakhtiar at his home on August 6, 1991.

The last prime minister under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Bakhtiar fled to France in 1980 after the Iranian Revolution and his home in Suresnes, west of Paris, had been under round-the-clock police surveillance.

Vakili Rad and an accomplice were allowed inside the villa by an aide to Bakhtiar, who was murdered along with his secretary Fouroush Katibeh.

Arrested in Switzerland, he was extradited to face trial in France but the other two accomplices escaped.

"He will go back to his country, rebuild his life and work in a travel agency," said the lawyer.

Opposition Socialists suggested that France had secured Reiss' release in exchange for sending Vakili Rad home along with a second man, engineer Majid Kakavand, who was wanted in the United States for trial.

Last week, a Paris court rejected a US extradition request for Kakavand, who was accused of buying electronic components and exporting them illegally to be used by Tehran's military.

The Iranian engineer, who had been arrested in March 2009 at the request of Washington, flew home to Iran last Friday.

"To say that nothing had been offered in return" for Reiss' release amounts to "taking us for fools," said Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon.

Reiss, a fluent Farsi speaker and Iran specialist, was arrested on July 1 as she was preparing to fly home after a six-month study and teaching stint in the city of Isfahan.

She was accused of taking and emailing photos of protests that erupted after the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in June, and handing material to a diplomat at the French embassy in Tehran.

A former senior official at France's DGSE foreign intelligence agency further stirred controversy when he claimed that, while Reiss did not formally work as a spy, she had passed on useful information.

"She is not a spy. She was a contact for our representative in Tehran," said Pierre Siramy, who is promoting a book on his years in intelligence.

The foreign and defence ministries denied his claim, calling it "pure fantasy."

© 2010 AFP

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